The Legendary Wave Duke Kahanamoku Once Surfed

Surfers today revere Duke Kahanamoku as the father of modern surfing. Born in Hawaii in 1890, he helped popularize the sport in the early 20th century, after Christian missionaries had almost wiped it out for good. He took his iconic 16-foot board that weighed over 100 pounds all over the world to perform in surfing exhibitions that ended up bringing wave riding to the global mainstream. He was also a world-class swimmer, with three Olympic gold medals to prove it, and invented a totally new way for the world to swim, according to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum. These impressive skills took him to the silver screen, as well, and he starred in over 20 Hollywood films. He once rescued eight people from a sinking ship on his board. And, as Time magazine reported in 2015, he even helped Hawaii gain statehood in 1959.

But you don't get nicknamed "The Big Kahuna" without having a story of riding a massive wave that not only propels you a mile down the coast, but also into the stuff of legend. According to the Christian Science Monitor, that day came in 1917, when he caught a wave that he would tell reporters was over 30 feet high. He'd already broken world records and surfed everywhere from Australia to New Zealand to California, but that day was the day that turned Duke Kahanamoku the man into the stuff of surfing myth.

Duke Kahanamoku rode the legendary wave for over a mile

According to Men's Journal, the surf at Waikiki Bay has changed quite a bit over the last century or so. In the 1800s, priests at a temple on Diamond Head, a volcanic point to the south of the bay, would fly kites to indicate that the surf was up. In those days, a surfer could catch a wave off the point and ride it for almost two miles. And in 1917, Duke Kahanamoku came close to achieving this impressive feat. In May of that year, a storm near New Zealand created a huge swell that surged across the Pacific and struck an area called Castle's, a spot of Waikiki Beach where the waves break so far from shore that it's known to surfers as Steamer Lane because they float out near the shipping channel to wait for them.

When the swell hit Oahu from the south, Kahanamoku caught the wave it produced at Steamer Lane with his 16-foot, 114-pound red koa wood board without a skeg (the fin underneath the rear of modern surfboards) and rode it for over a mile across the iconic Waikiki coastline to a place called Canoes, where beach boys waited to take tourists around the bay in outrigger canoes. What makes the feat even more legendary is that the surf doesn't break like this off Waikiki anymore, so it's unlikely that anyone else is going to come along and do it again anytime soon.

The place where Duke Kahanamoku caught the wave was already the stuff of legend

Hawaiians call this surf spot Kalehuawehe, and it has been the stuff of legends since long before Kahanamoku rode the mile-long monster that cemented his place in the in the history of the island of Oahu. According to the University of Hawaii, Kalehuawehe is an ancient surfing area that is credited as the spot where the taboo on surfing was broken. The legend has that a young chief from the valley of Manoa, now a neighborhood in Honolulu, broke the taboo when he gave his lehua lei to the daughter of Chief Kakuhihewa, who until that point had been the only person allowed to surf the fantastic waves of Waikiki. When Chief Kakuhihewa's daughter accepted the lei, anyone who wanted to ride the waves could do so. The name literally means "the removed lehua lei" in honor of this legend.

When Duke Kahanamoku rode that massive wave back in May 1917, he was continuing a long tradition that goes back generations in Hawaii, and his legacy continues to be celebrated to this day. So it's no wonder that, as noted by Surfer Today, he was the first person to earn a spot in the Halls of Fame for both swimming and surfing, and that he was given the title of the official "Ambassador of Aloha" when Hawaii achieved statehood.